I wrote this series way back in 2002, when Argentina was in the midst of its biggest economic and institutional crisis in a century. I had just started thinking of myself as a “real” photographer, somebody who made images with artistic intent rather than snapping pictures while traveling. I had traveled to Buenos Aires with a Yashica Mat TLR, my first medium format camera, and a big amount of film. At the time, the old cafés of my childhood were already disappearing and I wanted to document as many as I could. Since then, I have photographed the cafés in Buenos Aires on every trip. One lovely difference now: My goddaughters, now grown and analog photographers in their own right, bring their own cameras along.
In spite of the rain, today I went out
for a cup at the café…
- Baldomero Fernández Moreno, Buenos Aires poet
On a Sunday afternoon, I’m sipping a hot cortado (a small cup of espresso with a dash of frothy milk) at the Café Británico, on the corner of the block where the Russian Orthodox Church stands with its blue onion-shaped spires. Across from my window at the café is the vast expanse of Parque Lezama, where craftspeople sell their wares from under canopies. A few blocks away is the hustle and bustle at the heart of San Telmo, the city’s historical district, with cobblestone streets lined with tasteful stores selling antiques. Inside the Británico, an old man in a Russian fur hat reads the Argentine newspaper and comments on the news with the waiter, an ancient gallego (a man from the Spanish province of Galicia), who has probably worked at this place since he was a young lad. Welcome to that most permanent of Argentinean institutions: the slightly unpolished, beloved city café.
There is a popular Argentine tango called Cafetín de Buenos Aires—a diminutive reflection of the intimate relationship and deep affection of the porteños for their neighborhood café. The tango suggests one to choose a café at a young age, which then becomes an intricate part of one’s soul, serving as a place of sanctuary, lifelong friends, and a school for life’s teachings.
The cafés of Buenos Aires have variable landscape and geography: from the plush downtown cafés like the venerable Tortoni and the Ideal to the old nondescript corner cafés tucked away in the barrios with their billiard tables occupied by good old boys who have lived down the block their entire lives. From the side tables, they are being watched by the retired sages who have an opinion and a comment for everything, be it the latest political outrage, the disgraceful way the national fútbol team is playing, or the weather.
These neighborhood cafés are the places I love, away from the marble tops or the clean cloths that cover the downtown cafés’ tables. They are disappearing fast, like most traces of the city I grew up in, which was still huge then but somehow seemed to possess more of a human scale than this monstrous megalopolis that Buenos Aires is today. Some are being razed, the plots of land where they were built more than a century ago are suddenly too valuable. In many cases, the grandchildren or great grandchildren of the modest immigrant founders have long since given wide berth to their humble beginnings and have no interest in keeping the old place going. In other cases, some misguided soul decides the place needs a face lift and be “modernized." So, out goes the boisserie, the high ceilings are lowered, recessed lighting is wired in place and the old café looks like any sad, trendy place anywhere in the world.
But there are a few pieces of these café that remain: the black and white tiles of the floor faintly dusty by mid afternoon, the white-coated waiter a blur of fast service and courtesy, the still affordable prices , the billiards animated, the old men content. Outside, the country may be falling apart at the seams. Inside, you can ask for a cortado, claim that table by the window and spend all the hours you want reading the paper, burrying into a book, or scribbling your own musings. The waiter will be at one corner, a benevolent presence attentive to your need for another one, but otherwise he’ll leave you alone.
My favorite one, Café y Billares Argos on the corner of Lacroze and Alvarez Thomas, still has the green metal awning all cafés and restaurants had when I was a child. A color TV mounted on one of the walls, next to a gas heater, is on at all hours, the volume low— the only sign of modern times, probably an addition of the last ten or twenty years. Affectionately ignored during the week, except for the passing glance now and then to catch a headline that will fuel discussions for a couple hours, the TV becomes a focal point on Sunday mornings of Formula 1 car racing, international tennis matches where a young Argentinean hero beats the odds and makes the Wimbledon final, and later in the day for one of a million soccer matches. In the neighborhoods that are home to their very own soccer teams, such as la Boca, Avellaneda, Parque Patricios and Almagro, the cafés are the alpha and the omega of the day: starting point for the walk down to the stadium, destination where the victory or the loss will be celebrated or mourned with a shot of ginebra with the coffee.
For a few years, my home away from home was La Giralda, across the street from the School of Philosophy and Letters. Student cafés, more determinedly coed than any neighborhood place where clientele leans heavily towards the older and the male, surround every one of the many colleges scattered around the city that make up the Universidad de Buenos Aires. Since forever, my college has had a solid bohemian tradition rooted on café life, as intrinsic to our degrees as the sound knowledge of the classics and Lit Theory. At La Giralda, we would spend torrid December days waiting to be called for orals, desperately reading and rereading to make sure we had another unit fresh on our brains, stomachs sick with nerves and too much caffeine and cigarette smoke. The waiter of a student café would adopt you early in your career, keep up with the vagaries of your diet, knowing when to bring a straight cafecito without even a trace of milk, when to comment on how good the tostado sandwiches were that day. He wouldn’t necessarily know your name, but would know which particular tables you were fond of. The waiter would also know which class and professor you were studying for with just one glance at the texts on the table. “Aaahhh… Góngora, huh? Spanish Literature of the Golden Age, then.”
This series will continue next week. See you then!
Lorraine Healy (@lorrainehealy) is an Argentinean writer and photographer living in the Pacific Northwest. A long-time fan of plastic cameras and she is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera, available as an eBook from Amazon.com.